by T Negeen Pegahi

In a recent War on the Rocks piece, Ankit Panda and Vipin Narang use the case of Pakistan to shed light on the ongoing nuclear crisis in North Korea, including examining whether nuclear weapons will embolden Kim Jong Un’s regime to act on its stated revisionist goals. After all, this isn’t the first time a dissatisfied state facing a stronger adversary has acquired and tested nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles.

Panda and Narang provide a thoughtful, though partial, counter to the many recent analyses offering dire predictions should North Korea’s nuclearization continue unchecked. The authors evaluate whether increasing nuclear capabilities led Pakistan to expand its revisionist objectives vis-à-vis India, try harder to achieve them, or increase its chances of doing so. Panda and Narang find that nuclear weapons neither increased Pakistan’s appetites nor improved its outcomes, but did embolden the country to more vigorously pursue its objectives, if only temporarily and ultimately to no avail. This suggests policymakers are right to fear stepped-up unwanted behavior from North Korea which, even if it won’t last long or necessarily secure Pyongyang’s objectives, will still mean real costs and risks to U.S. and allied forces and possibly civilians in the interim.

I argue, however, that nuclearization did not embolden Pakistan. My research offers a very different interpretation of the Kargil conflict, the key case on which Panda and Narang focus. Although Kargil took place a mere year after Pakistan’s nuclear tests, digging into the case shows that the country’s nascent nuclear arsenal drove neither Pakistan’s decision to start the conflict nor India’s decision about how to respond. Instead, conventional military considerations and broader political concerns drove both sides’ choices. The historical lessons of Kargil suggest that policymakers should adjust course on North Korea: They shouldn't expect even the limited and temporary embolden Panda and Narang’s analysis implies and, as a result, they shouldn't be willing to incur substantial costs and risks to try to slow or stop the further spread of nuclear weapons, much less roll back existing arsenals.

The Crucial Case of Kargil

The Kargil conflict is a milestone in the seven-decades-long confrontation between India and Pakistan and the most important crisis of the so-called “second nuclear age.” Kargil represents the largest-scale fighting between the South Asian rivals since 1971 and their most significant engagement in Kashmir since 1965. More broadly, the conflict is one of only two cases in which two nuclear-armed states’ forces have fought one another (the 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict being the other) and one of just four in which any state’s forces have attacked a nuclear-armed power (the 1973 Arab-Israel War and the 1982 Falklands War being the additional two). Kargil is held up as the archetypal example of nuclear weapons emboldening their possessors, so getting it right matters — both to better understand the case in its own right and, at least as important, to better draw lessons about the likely effects of nuclear proliferation in other regions.

The conflict started in early 1999, with Pakistan infiltrating paramilitary soldiers across the Line of Control that divides the two countries’ portions of the disputed region of Kashmir. These Northern Light Infantry troops crossed into Indian territory high in the Himalayas and threatened India’s main ground line of communication in its far north. By late May, Indian forces were fully engaged working to dislodge the Pakistanis. Indian soldiers, many of whom had been rushed to the theater without adequate acclimatization or cold-weather gear, advanced up steep slopes fully exposed to both the elements and Pakistani fire. Conditions were grueling but by early July Indian forces had driven back the intruders. U.S. intervention added diplomatic ballast to these Indian battlefield victories and the conflict was officially over by the end of July, with the status quo ante re-established.

Pakistan’s Decision-Making 

What role, if any, did Pakistan’s nuclear weapons play in each side’s decision making? For Pakistan’s part, the planners of the operation — a group of four Army generals — don’t appear to have been driven by their country’s new nuclear status. Indeed, according to the researchers who have had the greatest access to them, the generals didn't think much about nuclear weapons at all in the run-up to Kargil, acting instead “as if they lived in a pre-nuclear, conventional world.” This might seem surprising, but shouldn't when viewed in the context of the late 1990s — when Pakistan’s nuclear planning and strategy were embryonic, its nuclear weapons non-operational, and its generals unfamiliar with nuclear issues. There’s certainly no evidence the generals were thinking any differently or making bolder plans because of the country’s nuclear weapons.

The Pakistani generals seem to have expected to create a fait accompli based on strictly non-nuclear considerations, assessing the Indian military simply lacked any good options for responding. Pakistan Army leadership thought the Indians would find each main type of potential counterattack unappealing. In the immediate area of operations, Pakistan’s troops would be extremely difficult to dislodge, and the coming monsoon rains would make any attempt even tougher. In other sectors along the Line of Control, Indian troops were already bogged down with and worn out from longstanding counter-insurgency duties in the region. Diverting some of them to open additional fronts would spread them even thinner and undermine other Indian efforts. And along the recognized international border south of Kashmir, the overall force ratio favored India, but not by nearly enough to meet widely used thresholds for successful offensives. The Pakistani planners appear to have believed they could simply take and hold the territory, then use it to bargain for Indian concessions.

What about the timing of the operation, coming only a year after Pakistan tested nuclear weapons? While anyone who’s taken an introductory statistics course can recite the mantra that “correlation is not causation,” it’s still natural to assume that such an important change coming so soon before such a big decision had to be driving that decision.

A closer examination, however, reveals a series of non-nuclear explanations for why Kargil happened when it did. Perhaps most importantly, General Pervez Musharraf was appointed head of the Pakistan Army in October 1998. Musharraf had more experience with high-altitude warfare than perhaps any other officer in Pakistan’s history and had been pushing a Kargil-like operation for years. While those efforts had been consistently rebuffed as too risky by either the head of the Army or the prime minister, Musharraf was now chief of army staff — and serving under a civilian leader (Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif) uniquely ill-versed in and disengaged from regional geopolitics to boot.

This new Army leadership perceived a number of threats and opportunities that made a Kargil-like operation seem even more important at the time. Intercepted Indian communications, media reports, and troop deployments generated pressure to head off the Indian attack that Army leadership thought was imminent. The recent return of some sense of normalcy to daily life in the Indian portion of Kashmir, the warming of relations between Islamabad and New Delhi, and the international community’s declining interest in the disputed region created incentives before these trends could derail the Army’s longstanding interests in maintaining tensions with India and “winning” Kashmir for Pakistan. And India’s general complacency in the area, presumed U.S. support for Pakistan after India tested nuclear weapons first, and Washington’s distinct distraction given developments in President Bill Clinton’s personal life made it appear as though a brief window of opportunity was opening.

In short, we don’t need Pakistan’s nuclear weapons to explain either the specific motivations for Kargil or its timing. The Pakistan Army’s new leadership combined with a weak civilian prime minister, preemptive pressures at the operational level and preventive ones at the strategic, and the generals’ expectation that Indian and American leaders were otherwise engaged provide alternate explanations for the timing of the decision to attack at Kargil. Pakistan likely would’ve launched the conflict in 1999 regardless of its nuclear status.

India’s Decision-Making

One of the ironies of the Kargil conflict is that while the Pakistan Army leadership was caught off guard by the ferocity of the Indian counterattack, many outside observers seem surprised by how moderate and localized that Indian response was. This view is only reinforced by how difficult the fighting in the Kargil sector was for Indian troops — surely there must have been some easier way to defeat Pakistan than by frontal assaults up the Himalayas? By this logic, a more substantial military operation would have been “better” for India, but Indian leaders must have been deterred from such a response and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons must have been what was deterring them.

But better at achieving what? To understand whether India had better military options that it had to discard because of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, it’s necessary to understand what end-state those options were trying to achieve. India’s objective was simple, according to the prime minister: “to throw out the invaders from Indian territory.” The head of the Indian army was clear on the civilian leadership’s goals as well as the motivation behind them, noting the government’s “overriding political goal at Kargil was to eject the intruders” since the “loss of territory, however remote or small, is just not acceptable to the public at large or to the political authority.”

Given this limited objective of re-establishing the status quo ante, what else might India have done in the absence of Pakistani nuclear weapons? The two most frequently cited “better” options are crossing the Line of Control to interdict Pakistani troops and/or their supply lines, or opening a new front or fronts — either elsewhere in Kashmir or further south along the recognized Indo-Pakistani border — to divide Pakistani forces or take some Pakistani territory. But Indian forces were explicitly ordered not to cross the Line of Control and no additional fronts were opened. Many outside observers conclude Pakistan’s nuclear weapons drove these Indian decisions — especially since India took precisely those steps in 1965 when a pre-nuclear Pakistan launched a substantial attack in Kashmir.

But Pakistan’s nuclear status isn’t the only difference between the two conflicts. The 1965 Pakistani effort was an order of magnitude larger than the 1999 attempt and the resultant threat to India was qualitatively different and greater. In 1965, about 30,000 Pakistanis crossed the central and lower portions of the Line of Control, threatening to sever the entire Kashmir Valley from the rest of India. In 1999, however, about 1,500 Pakistanis crossed the northernmost stretch of the Line, threatening the Indian military’s access to a disputed glacier — a conflict Stephen Cohen has likened to two bald men fighting over a comb. The 1965 war claimed about 7,000 lives; the 1999 conflict, about 700. None of this is to trivialize the later Kargil conflict; it’s simply to suggest that a different and smaller threat, not fear of nuclear retaliation, was the reason India didn’t launch an equally large counterattack in 1999.

Regardless of Pakistan’s nuclear status, it’s unlikely that India would have chosen a response other than the one it did. None of the larger-scale options would likely have helped India clear the intruders from its side of the Line of Control — indeed, some would likely have made achieving that objective more difficult. Retaking the posts was not only the most direct route to victory but also likely the least risky and costly one. Furthermore, India reaped real diplomatic dividends from its restraint, including Clinton’s leaning on the Pakistani prime minister to end the conflict on New Delhi’s terms.

Again, we don’t need Pakistan’s nuclear weapons to explain either why India chose a different response in 1999 than in 1965 or why India chose the specific response it did in 1999. Both Pakistan’s behavior and India’s response were driven by conventional military considerations and broader political concerns. This suggests the oft-cited “lessons” of Kargil — that nuclear weapons incentivize their possessors to act more aggressively and force adversaries to restrain their responses — are incorrect.

Lessons for North Korea Today

Pakistan wasn't emboldened by its nuclear weapons, even in the early years, and India doesn't appear to have been restrained by them either. So not only did increasing nuclearization not lead Pakistan to want more or get more, it didn't even lead the country to try more. North Korea has taken a number of unwelcome actions and will likely continue to do so. But the earlier case of Pakistan suggests there’s no reason to expect these sorts of behavior to increase as the North Korean regime’s nuclear capabilities do.

This raises a broader, if perhaps counterintuitive, point: The utility of nuclear weapons is sharply limited. While they may be useful for deterring the types of attacks that can threaten the survival of a state, they have yet to show themselves adept at achieving any other goals. This includes blackmailing rivals and deterring lower-level attacks, such as state-sponsored insurgency or limited conventional attacks. Nuclear weapons have so far been useful only for deterrence and only for deterring the direst threats at that.

The real-life uses and limits of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence should inform policymakers’ approach to the ongoing crisis with North Korea. U.S. policymakers seem to be buying into the intuitive idea that nuclear weapons will embolden North Korea to ramp up its efforts against the United States and its allies. If this were true, U.S. willingness to incur substantial costs and risks to prevent such an outcome might make strategic sense. But the lessons of Kargil suggest the opposite. Not only have nuclear weapons not driven Pakistan to expand its objectives or enabled it to improve its outcomes, they haven’t even incentivized the country to try harder — and there’s no reason to expect any different with North Korea. As such, while talk of delivering Pyongyang a “bloody nose” may play well with a segment of the American electorate, such plans are strategically unsound.